The Unconventional String Ensemble: Successful Rehearsals and Music Selection Do Exist!

If you have additional resources or ideas to add, please contact me so I can update this list. Thank you in advance!

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Techniques/rehearsal suggestions. Although some of these are specific to unconventional instrumentation, many are just good rehearsal strategies – for all groups!

a)    Balance/blend. With unconventional instrumentation students may have to adjust to melody in “unusual” octaves. Intentionally assign the melody to the basses and bass line to the violins and have the group discuss pros & cons.

b)   Score reading. Use a document camera to project the book or score. Help the students define important musical phrases and prepare their playing accordingly. With many “flexible” arrangement books the students are essentially reading a score – make sure they realize it! The document camera can also be used to assist with bowings & fingerings.

c)    Making musical/expressive decisions. If the tune is familiar or even has words have the students sing it before sight-reading on instruments. Evaluate where there are inflections and important moments. Decide as a group how to communicate that on instruments.

d)   Independence/importance of certain lines. Have the person/section playing the melody line be as expressive as possible (perhaps even over-do it comically). Everyone else must listen & adapt. Melody needs to be prominent at all times. If it is difficult to hear the melody consider amplifying the melodic instrument(s) electronically.

e)    Rhythm. Students playing back-up or bass lines for the first time may find it difficult to stay steady when they are used to flowing melodies (cough, cough, violins, cough J). Have everyone play a steady eighth note pulse to feel confident. Then divide back into melody and accompaniment.

f)     Learning through comparison. Use YouTube to watch a group perform the piece you’re working on. Discuss how your “unconventional” group is different (and similar!) and may need to approach the music differently to be as effective as the recorded group.

g)    Musical leadership. Definitely in a chamber group, but even in an ensemble with a concertmaster, use a familiar tune as a chance to practice student leadership. Perhaps suggest physical or bowing cues to indicate starts of phrases.

h)   Wanting for bass. If you are just not able to have the bass line covered, use GarageBand or another app to provide that bass line. If you set it up on a loop or with a rhythm it will also serve as a metronome.

i)     Intonation. Rounds & canons are a perfect place to really focus on intonation.  Select students, or allow them to self-select, to play intentionally out of tune for one run through. See if the rest of the ensemble can identify the culprits.

j)     Listening skills/balance. Possible sequence:

1.     Sight read

2.     Have students evaluate which lines are most important when/where

3.     Play again with those decisions in mind

4.     Evaluate

5.     Try emphasizing other lines to confirm decisions or prompt change

6.     Evaluate

7.     Repeat


Flexible music to use in ensembles with “challenging” instrumentation. :-) Also useful in chamber groups.

1)  American Patriotic Tunes for String Ensemble. Robert Gardner. Alfred.

This book was created specifically for ensembles with unconventional instrumentation. Violin/viola books have melody, harmony 1, and harmony 2 lines. Cello/bass books have melody, harmony and bass line.

2)   Bach and Before for Strings. David Newell. Kjos.

Each chorale in this book is written with separate soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines as well as a solo version with piano accompaniment. Any instrument can play any line.

3)   Beautiful Music for Two Stringed Instruments 1, 2, 3, 4. Samuel Applebaum. Alfred.

These well-known, time-tested books are a favorite of many teachers. Each volume includes over 30 duets. Each book includes an “A” line and “B” line and the books are designed to coordinate between instruments.  

4)   Christmas Kaleidoscope and Christmas Kaleidoscope II. Robert S. Frost. Kjos.

Obviously a seasonal book, but still very useful for unconventional instrumentation. Violin and viola books have A, B, C lines. Cello books have A, D, E and bass just has A, E (but could also read from a cello book with ease).

5)   Compatible Duets/Trios/Christmas. Larry Clark & Doris Gazda. Carl Fischer.

Each set makes it easy to play in duets or trios with provided melody and harmony lines for 30+ tunes.

6)   Fiddlers Philharmonic and Fiddler’s Philharmonic Encore! Andrew H. Dabczynski & Bob Phillips. Alfred.

These fiddle tunes are arranged for each instrument in a “solo key” and then in a “group key.” In the “group key,” each book provides the tune and break lines, as well as chord symbols above the staff. The violin/viola books also have a back-up line while the cello/bass books have a bass line.

7)   Flex-Ability Classics/Pops/More Pops/Holiday. Victor Lopez. Alfred.

Each set makes it easy to play solos, duets, trios, or quartets with one melody line and three harmony lines. Each line is set at a different difficulty level.

8)   Jazz Combo Session. Dean Sorenson. Kjos.

This book provides a melody and harmony line for each instrument, as well as chord symbols above the staff.

9)   Jazz Philharmonic and Jazz Philharmonic 2. Randy Sabien & Bob Phillips. Alfred.

In addition to warm-up exercises for each tune in corresponding keys, with corresponding rhythms, each instrument sees the tune and two possible solos built from the tune. There are also chord symbols above the staff. Violin/viola books also have background 1 & 2 lines while cello books have bass 2 and background lines and bass books have bass 1 & 2 lines.

10)         Primo Performance & Primo Encores. Robert Frost. Kjos.

Each of these books have 30+ tunes arranged for the beginning ensemble. Each book has a melody line and three or four melody/accompaniment lines.

11)         My First Progressive Duets/Progressive Duets/Trios/Quartets. Doris Gazda. Carl Fischer.

These books provides pieces that can be played by any combination of string instruments. Each book offers the four parts of the quartet.

12)         Rounds and Canons: Shaping Musical Independence. Louis Bergonzi. Kjos.

Half of book is 3- and 4-part round and canons.

The other half is string orchestra arrangements of “classical” tunes, featuring the rounds & canons introduced previously. In this section, the violin book includes violin 1, violin 2, and violin 3 (treble clef viola). The other instrument books include only one part for each tune.

13)         World on a String. Ramona Holmes & Teres M. Volk. Alfred.

Although this book is designed to provide “a sampling of musical traditions from around the world,” it includes solos, duets, and string orchestra arrangements. Each student book contains the melody of each piece and alternate parts including bass line, countermelody, or harmony.